Sustainable New York [?]

by Federico Cassani

5.00 PM rain – Van Wyck Expressway (somewhere near Brianwood)


1.0 Intro

The idea at the beginning of my trip to NYC was to describe and analyze couple of examples of how the city approach to sustainability and pedestrian friendly environment progressed in the last few years. This first idea started crumbling as soon as I got on a taxi from JFK to the Lower East Side. The scenery is not different from any other city of the world (especially when it rains), cars everywhere.

The scale of the infrastructures, however, is impressive, and it clearly shows the car oriented approach of infrastructure design in the States. Urban highways with enormous interchanges, enormous amount of wasted space… just another enormous traffic jam.


Interchange between Van Wyck Expressway and Grand Central Parkway (source Google Map)


Without even reaching Manhattan, my idea of finding here a different approach on urban design was shattered (not that I was really expecting something different) and our thoughts on transport planning are true as ever.

Since the modernist vision of the city, urban design has been the field for architects, landscapers and planners, most of the time segregated into the design of high quality (and expensive) refurbishments in the historical hearts and “piazzas” of the city centers.

The rest of the city was left to traffic engineers, more interested into taking care of traffic flows and traffic congestion rather than designing for the quality of the urban spaces. This division of roles created a clear urban fragmentation between the “social” areas and the “traffic areas”, basically dividing the urban spaces into places to live and places to go through, centre and periphery, quality and quantity.

Nothing different here.


2.0 The periphery becomes the  centre…

What is very interesting is the urban regeneration process connected with the redevelopment of the High Line in Western Manhattan.

The High Line is not just a Masterpiece in terms of urban design and landscape design, it has been also a powerful vehicle of regeneration of the entire area. This area of West Chelsea was an obsolete manufacturing area in need of regeneration. The High Line (this is a simplification, the process has been obviously much more complex – please see the book HIGH LINE, The inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky for further reading) created the spinning wheel for the redevelopment of the area with an interesting mix of uses, residential, hotel, retail, galleries, bars and restaurants.

The High Line is a great example for Local Authorities how investing in the quality of the public space will determine a virtuous circle of increase in land value and in an overall quality of dismissed and obsolete areas.


Washington Street Shops at the northern entrance of the High Line on Gansevoort Street


Building sites from the High Line


View from the High Line with F.O. Ghery and Jean Nouvell buildings


View from the High Line on the new condo HL23


3.0 … and what does the centre become?

In 2009 Broadway between Times Square and Herald Square has been closed to vehicular traffic and made pedestrianized by NYC DOT. The main task of the “Green Light for Midtown project” was to “simultaneously improve mobility and safety in the Midtown core, and ultimately to make the area a better place to live, work and visit.[…] DOT’s analysis of the data shows that the project has improved mobility by increasing overall motor vehicle travel speeds and accommodating growing travel volumes.”

This is for an European planner, used to decades of pedestrianization of city centers and public squares a quite shocking achievement. To “increase travel speeds” and “accommodate travel volumes” seems a surreal targets in comparison to the achievement of creating a new public space. Only as “additional results” the report underlines that “74% of New Yorkers surveyed agree that Times Square has improved dramatically over the last year and that The number of pedestrians traveling along Broadway and 7th Avenue in Times Square increased by 11%.”

I think that the “additional results” are more than enough to make the square permanent (decision made almost 2 years ago now) and to start increasing the quality of the public space through permanent design (possibly of the same outstanding quality of the high line).


Broadway - January 2012

Times Square- January 2012


4.0 there is never a conclusion always a way forward

It is interesting to find similarities all over the world on how the metropolis are struggling to self morphing into something different, trying to manipulate the past made of infrastructures and traffic channels (fluid-dynamic) into a future city made of public spaces and places to live (flow-design). The examples of this spatial evolution (revolution ?) are still very sparse and difficult to assemble in a real manifesto of global approach to sustainability (Times Square VS Trafalgar Square – still a drop in the ocean).

The way forward is still a long way, for one High Line we still have hundreds of interchanges, bridges, fly overs that are designed exclusively to go faster, to grow bigger, to accommodate more traffic.

We have to hope that the success of these examples will create a virtuous circle that will increase the public awareness and a social call for a better and sustainable way of designing and living the city.


The waterfront between Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge (under F.D. Roosevelt East River Driveway)





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